Tag Archives: Identity

Who’s Your Family?

27 Nov

Lady with Punk Grandson II(Image by Christ_i_ane used under CC 2.o via)

From the Archives

 “We don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.”

— Holly Hunter in Home for the Holidays

Whenever you set out to talk about minority rights, you end up crashing into the issue of identity. And this invariably swerves, again and again, into the issue of family. The poet Sharon Olds once said, “A family is a mystery,” and this is probably why I can’t get enough of it in novels, film, clinical trials, and yes, even in real life. Show me someone fascinating and I can’t wait to meet their parents.

In and outside of the holiday season, twenty- and thirtysomethings so often love to extoll the importance of friends over relatives, echoing Oscar Wilde: “Friends are God’s apology for family.” Our first true friendships usually begin in adolescence—the time when we start wanting to forge our identities independently from our families—and this sets the standard whereby friends are seen as a respite from all of our obligations: from parents and siblings, from school, from work, from the exhaustion of the holidays spent with the relatives. “My family drives me nuts, my friends get me,” pop culture says. “Sure I love my family, but I actually like my friends.”

And yet, friendships ultimately prove to be fleeting with age, as life partners and earning money and having children begin to take priority. A study at Oxford University found that taking on a romantic partner generally pushes two close friends out of your life. A serious boyfriend or girlfriend is, after all, a super-close friend and there are only so many hours in the day to fit people in. It seems entirely reasonable to conclude that the addition of in-laws and children require us to quietly toss a few more buddies overboard. Or at least scratch them off the gift list.

Few of us like to face the harsh truth that the number one facilitator of friendship is convenience. How many people have we doused in superlative praise, spilled our hearts to, bragged with about our never-ending awesomeness, only to eventually lose touch because we live too far away, we’ve changed our habits since that new job/baby/boyfriend, we haven’t spoken in so long and wouldn’t know what to say? Sure, we’ll fling them a Facebook birthday greeting, but composing an entire email would require so much apologizing for having taken this long to write…

Maintaining a friendship requires effort, as author Julie Klam said in an interview with Linda Holmes on NPR two years ago:

She realized, too, that it wasn’t an area that was being written about very much in a way that spoke to her experiences. She found a lot of clichés, but not a lot of insight. “Everything that I had read about friendships was always … platitudes about, you know, ‘friends are like flowers and you have to water them’ or whatever. Or the T-shirts with the koala bear and the flower and the ‘Friends are…’.”

So… Why is there so much writing about so many aspects of our lives — love, sex, money, family, careers — and so little about the inner workings of friendships that are so central to so many people’s lives? Maybe, Klam theorizes, it’s because friendships seem disposable and interchangeable when you look at them like an efficiency expert. “There’s some sort of thing about, like, ‘Well, if you don’t like the friend, just don’t be friends with them.’ Rather than the idea of working things out.” Working things out, as you know if you read other kinds of relationship books, is the usual ideal outcome, rather than bolting when trouble strikes.

… And of course, that’s what makes keeping up with your friends complicated. When I ask her what she considers the big challenge of adult friendships, she emphasizes that it’s legitimately hard to make time for them, because they’re not, you know, mandatory. And the older you get, the more things in your life are mandatory.

Perhaps this is why there is such a paucity of stories about friendship in books and film. A friendship can be destroyed without any drama. All the characters have to do is lose touch.

And that can be fine. Many friendships are simply not worth laboring over. Time changes every one of us and there is little point in forcing ourselves to pretend to be someone we are not simply for the sake of sustaining the appearance of something that no longer serves us. Scores of people can be your perfect match in a single context: that course you took together, that team you both played on, that year you roomed together when a deep heart-to-heart required nothing more than walking down the hall and flopping onto the bed with a beer. (Or maybe there was more convenience in those years before you roomed together and had no idea how much/little time/money s/he spends on cleaning/personal hygiene/video games.)

A friendship is significant if it can survive all the changes and challenges life will inevitably throw at it. But the same goes for family, to the extent that I believe there is really no difference between the two. As Andrew Solomon wrote in what I still consider the Best Book of the 21st Century, “Love becomes more acute when it requires exertion.” The exertion can be exquisite.

Family can be fun to be with, but what they offer with far more consistency is purpose. This is why studies find that parents are often happier watching television than spending time with their children, but it’s their children—not television—that inspire them to endure when they are faced with pain or hardship.

Many traditional beliefs about family are not helpful. If you’ve explored this blog at all, you know I believe bloodlines are dangerously overrated. I also believe it can be damaging to expound upon the virtues of lifelong commitment and forgiveness without exception. While many people abandon others all too easily because they are more concerned with their own comfort than anyone else’s, just as many people remain in emotionally abusive relationships because their generosity trumps their self-care. I have sadly witnessed enough toxic relationships to know that some ties are better off severed.

This is why I define family not by genetics, but as the people you are so close to that they regularly drive you crazy – while still being worth the grief. They are the people who know you so well that it embarrasses you to think about. They can simultaneously be uncles, cousins, godmothers, half-brothers, former coworkers or classmates. But no matter their origin, once it’s clear to me that I will always stick by someone no matter how vexing they can be, they are family to me.

Because if novels and films and social psychology tell us anything, it’s that you can’t get truly close to another human being without being annoyed by them.

 

Originally published December 2014

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Blaming the Election on the Minority Rights Movement Is Flawed and Dangerous

20 Nov

 

It’s a trick you’re bound to encounter if you work with issues of diversity: Someone comes along and insists that he’s got nothing against any particular minority—in fact he’s all for progress!—but lots of people feel left out by diversity awareness so people should really stop talking about it. Now. I was told on Election Night by a voter that bringing up racism or homophobia is “divisive.” Mark Lilla writes in the New York Times this week that an over-emphasis on minority identities at schools and universities is what has caused the backlash seen in the recent U.S. election. 

This argument pushes the fallacious color-blindness approach to human rights, calling on us to “focus on our commonalities and not our differences.” Most people our society designates as minorities would love to be able to do this. We would be thrilled to live in a world where your race, nationality, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, cognitive ability and appearance are considered no more remarkable than whether or not you’re right-handed or left-handed. Such a world is the final goal in the struggle for social justice. But the insistence that the only way to achieve such a world is to start pretending we live in it already demands we kindly stop filing complaints of inequality, underrepresentation, harassment and abuse.    

Dr. Michael Ain says in the documentary Dwarfs: Not A Fairy Tale, “When you wake up in the morning, and you do what you have to do, you don’t think you’re different. When I woke up this morning to go to work, I don’t think, ‘I’m short.’ It doesn’t approach me when I look in the mirror. It doesn’t cross your mind until someone makes it apparent.” He then talked about how many doctors tried to block his efforts to apply for medical school on the basis of his physical appearance. “The first guy I interviewed with told me I couldn’t hold the respect of my patients because of my stature,” he reports.

Many of the proponents of the commonalties-not-differences approach are noble in their intentions if naïve in their conviction that such cases are tremendously rare and best left viewed as isolated incidents. But other proponents are simply irritated when attention is afforded to injustices other than those they personally have suffered. I have encountered many arguments placing blame on the “entitled, whining” attitude plaguing minorities, who are too obsessed with their own victimhood to learn about hard-work and self-reliance. Nine times out of ten, supporters of this view then argue that straight, white men actually have it harder than anyone else thanks to the social justice movements of the past 50 years. Which begs the question: Wait, who’s really acting like a victim here? Who’s blaming others for their lot in life?

Minority rights groups contain many people also guilty of such self-centeredness: Blacks who suppress Jews, Jews who suppress women, women who suppress trans citizens, etc., ad nauseam. Which is why it is crucial to reiterate that if we’re going to support the rights of one group, we have to support them all. Your identity matters far less than your willingness to think beyond your personal experience and understand the diverse sorts of harassment and Othering experienced by citizens of all identities.

And speaking of commonalities, I am done reading lectures from professors, pundits and princess experts that claim those of us in the minority rights movements are elitist and don’t understand the “white working class.” People who could be lumped into the “white working class” include many of my friends and family. Some of them join overly educated hard-liners in blaming immigrants and minorities for society’s problems, and some of them are leading the discussions on human rights. Some of them are massively insecure and will lash out if they have to hear anything about xenophobia, and some of them listen to diverse points of view better than anyone of any political conviction. And a tremendous number of them are LGBT, disabled, immigrant and/or non-Christian. Many of them are fully accepted by their peers for who they are. Many are not. Reducing human rights discussions to attacks on—or defenses of—“rednecks” ignores and insults the diversity of that group. Human rights discussions must always cross class lines. Those of us who base our work on intersectionality have been saying this for decades.

Writing and teaching about diversity awareness can be exhausting when even the classiest behavior is accused of divisiveness. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this and so does Brandon Victor Dixon, the star of Broadway’s smash hit Hamilton, who made his now famous appeal to the incoming vice-president of the United States on Friday night. See the video above or the transcript here:

Vice-president elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us, just a few more moments. [Some audience members begin to boo.] There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. We’re all here sharing a story about love. We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. We thank you for sharing this wonderful American story, told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations. 

Critics on both sides of the political spectrum are reprimanding Dixon for making this plea. After all, isn’t Pence accepting all Americans by attending a play with a diverse cast like Hamilton? 

As many others have pointed out, Pence is a politician recently elevated to a position of tremendous influence who has given many Americans good reason to worry that his acceptance of them does not extend much beyond tolerating their presence on a stage. He has successfully fought for the right for businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers and is an advocate of gay conversion therapy, which has been widely condemned as psychologically damaging by medical professionals. In his 2000 bid for Congress, Pence sought to defund any AIDS support organization that did not urge patients to repress their sexual orientation. 

Both stars of Hamilton are openly gay and one is HIV-positive. In a just world, they would have no reason to worry about their health under any presidential administration. But we do not live in that world yet, and Dixon’s appeal to Pence was as justified as it was polite.  I implore anyone who thinks otherwise to try changing their sexuality before they make a call for an end to diversity awareness.

 

 

The Rules For A Photo Shoot

10 May

Photo Shoot ©Ines Barwig(Image ©Ines Barwig)

 

“Sometimes you get a flash of what you look like to other people.”

― Zadie Smith, On Beauty

 

One of my responsibilities at my day job is to coordinate photo shoots for employee portraits. I’ve done this three times now, and it always requires warmly coaxing reluctant coworkers into saying yes, and chatting with them while the flashbulbs fire off in their face. Because, as the photographer told me the first time, “I need someone there to hold their hand. To keep them calm and smiling. Otherwise, a bunch of them will get all self-conscious and fussy. Sometimes it really feels like taking kids to the dentist.”

Indeed, even getting them to show up can be a challenge. A fair number of people flat-out refuse; most but not all of them women, who cut me off mid-sentence and insist, “No photos! I hate being photographed.”

Last week, just after I’d heard this for the umpteenth time, my cell phone rang. It was a reporter who is doing a television piece about Painting On Scars.

“Emily, my team and I just came up with a new idea for our story. We’d like to film you having your picture taken in a photo shoot to show how self-confident you are in front of a camera!”

I couldn’t hold back my laughter.

And then I thought, what is self-confidence in front of a camera?

My experience watching others has shown me that there are unspoken, commonly held beliefs that dictate so much behavior during photo shoots.

For one thing, we tend to believe that selfies are empowering, but that it’s embarrassing to be photographed by someone else. Which goes to show that it’s not about being photographed but relinquishing control over the photograph. Most of us have an idealized view of ourselves that includes seeing our own faces at a particular angle, but we hate it if someone captures us from an angle that deviates too much from our ideal. (This has been proven by clinical trials.)

We tend to prefer smiling photos of others but closed-mouth photos of ourselves. Showing teeth often strikes us as warm and welcoming on someone else, but the fear of looking too uninhibited results in many of us appearing overly serious in our portraits.

We tend to loudly list every physical feature we don’t like about ourselves, believing it signifies modesty. Even though it often comes off as fishing for compliments.

So we tend to reject direct compliments, again believing it to be a sign of modesty. Even though John Cleese famously told Stephen Fry:

“You genuinely think you’re being polite and modest, don’t you?”

“Well, you know …”

“Don’t you see that when someone hears their compliments contradicted they naturally assume that you must think them a fool? Suppose you went up to a pianist after a recital and told him how much you had enjoyed his performance and he replied, ‘Rubbish, I was awful!’ You would go away thinking you were a poor judge of musicianship and that he thought you an idiot.”

“Yes, but I can’t agree with someone if they praise me, that would sound so cocky. And anyway, suppose I do think I was awful?” (Which most of the time performers do think of themselves, of course.)

“It’s so simple. You just say thank you. You just thank them. How hard is that?”

You must think me the completest kind of arse to have needed to be told how to take a compliment, but it was an important lesson that I (clearly) never forgot. So bound up with not wanting to look smug and pleased with ourselves are we that we forget how mortifying it is to have compliments thrown back in one’s face.

Indeed, the photographers I’ve worked with remember subjects in terms of their agreeableness versus their fussiness. I bore this in mind as I prepared for my own photo shoot.

How much preparation was required? Recovering from surgery and combating unanticipated complications, I wasn’t feeling that I looked my best. I won’t reveal what about my looks were particularly displeasing to me because there is no right way to hate your body. Many in the Body Image movement have argued that it’s fair, not rude, to voice our insecurities. In fact, isn’t it good to let others know that they are not alone in their struggle for self-acceptance? But these insecurities do not exist in a vacuum. They exist in a hierarchy, and this hierarchy dictates that if I’m ashamed of gray hair, someone with more gray hair should be more ashamed. If I’m upset about having noticeable scars, someone with more noticeable scars should be more upset. And so on. Body-bashing upholds the hierarchy

And ignoring the effects one’s own body-bashing has on others is, no matter how you look at it, self-involved.

So instead of spending time and energy on whatever might disrupt my ideal self-image, I thought about what makes a photo shoot enjoyable.

A kind, charismatic photographer.

People who make you laugh.

Someone who truly loves you saying something particularly nice about their favorite photo.

Hearing from the photographer, “Thanks for being so easy-going! That was really fun.”

For two years, a friend would never let me or anyone take his picture. It was on very rare occasions—group photos, flirty hugs with a close friend—that he wouldn’t turn away or cover his face. Whatever hang-ups he had about physical imperfection, he carried himself in a manner that attracted both sexes from miles around. He visited me in college once and we noticed four of my fellow students check him out during his first hour on campus.

On another visit, I snapped his picture and declared, “Hey, you didn’t cover your face this time!”

“Yeah, I’ve stopped doing that.”

“Why?”

“ ’Cuz I found it’s really annoying when other people do that when I want to take their picture.”

I smiled. “Ya think?

 

 

Does Pride In Being Different Lead to Narcissism?

11 May

Being different(Image by Niccolò Caranti used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Long before there was Buzzfeed, there were online personality quizzes. (Back in the Analog Age, they featured in teen magazines like Sassy and YM.) Today they’re the rabbits of the Internet, every new one that pops up signifying ten more in gestation. “Which Mad Men Character Are You?” “Which Star Wars Character Are You?” “What City Are You?” Leading columnist Emma Roller to wisely observe, “No one cares.

Just for once, I’d love to see a quiz-taker being told: You’re Werda, Germany! Or You’re Selden, New York: You’ve got some nice areas and some sketchy areas, and a lot of perfectly fine but nondescript highways and sidestreets. A famous person passed through once, though that was ages ago. Some people like you, some people don’t. Most people haven’t heard of you except the couple thousand people who live there, plus the people who visit them or send them mail.

Or how about a quiz that announces, You’re one of the soldiers in Star Wars who gets killed in the first three minutes. Without you, and a bunch of other characters like you, there would be no shoot-out scene, and without the shoot-out scene, the audience wouldn’t know soon enough that they should fear the Empire. You are certainly useful—that’s why the actor who played you got paid after all—but no one will be looking for your name in the credits.

If such a result on a personality quiz sounds unthinkably cruel, then maybe we really do have a narcissism epidemic on our hands. Narcissism, after all, is the tendency to put your own needs ahead of others’ because, deep down inside, you believe you are more deserving of praise and sympathy. Because you’re different and special. (“Maybe there are a lot of Werdas and Seldens out there, but not me!”)

Every single one of us needs to feel special to someone, but the severity of this need can determine the difference between being self-confident and being self-involved. And when minorities embrace our exceptionality and take pride in being special, are we part of the problem?

It is easy to understand why minorities celebrate diversity with pride parades and slogans. Anyone who has been beaten up, harassed, or excluded for qualities they have no control over is understandably in need of a salve, whether that means spilling their hearts out in group therapy or singing along with the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus, “I am beautiful, no matter what they say.” When I mentioned to my mother that I’d been asked at school at least ten times in one month, “Why is your head so big?” she replied, “Just tell them you have an extra package of brains, honey!”

It was a sweet, wonderful piece of advice. With one hitch. My ten year-old self took her explanation literally, thrilled by the news that dwarfs are neurologically advantaged! And even when I later found out that she meant it figuratively, I continued to believe for a period that I was truly smarter than any ignoramus who had questions about my body. Society does have many hang-ups about difference that fuel rude questions and comments, and this is indisputably problematic. But it is also problematic to counteract these hang-ups with the conviction that your difference makes you essentially better than everyday people.

It is no coincidence that the minority rights movements of the 1970s and 80s peaked right before the height of the self-esteem movement. With self-determination seen as the key to obliterating prejudice and fear of the Other, millions of children in my generation grew up chanting, “I’m special!”  I remember singing along with Piglet and Tigger:

If everybody were like everybody else,

How boring it would be.

The things that make me different,

Are the things that make me, Me!

Stand tall.

You’re in a class by yourself.

Be proud.

You’re not like anyone else.

No doubt about it.

You’re second to none,

’Cause you’re the one and only,

Genuine, original,

You’re the one and only one!

This approach was very well-intentioned, but half-baked.  Everyone is special insofar as everyone is unique. But we so often use “special” interchangeably with “extraordinary,” as in: not merely unique, but better than the rest. It is statistically impossible for everyone to be second to none. We can simultaneously be unique and ordinary, yet it’s a fact that is hard for us to wrap our heads around and even harder for our egos to accept. It is unsurprising that raising a generation of individuals to celebrate their exceptional qualities has unleashed millions of adults who are now struggling to deal with the countless moments in which they are reminded that they are not all that different from anyone else. And who wince at the thought of being called “average.”

This doesn’t have to yield narcissism, but it can. Narcissism causes people to repeatedly bring up their differences not in order to feel comfortable with them, but in order to prove their exceptionality. It causes them to talk more than they listen, to abandon relationships after the initial shine wears off, to justify hurting their partner or bailing out on their families. Narcissism causes non-famous people to pity themselves as underappreciated, undiscovered geniuses lost in a sea of lowly idiots, and it causes famous people to fanatically envy those who are more famous. Narcissism can cause someone to not merely believe in changing the law in the pursuit of justice but to see herself as being above the law. And while it may help her keep her head held high when someone criticizes her unfairly, narcissism leaves her bitter and spiteful when the criticism is on the mark. 

And where there is narcissism, there is the savior complex – the desire to help people not because you would want someone to do the same for you in the same situation, but because you recognize an opportunity to be seen as special. This attitude betrays a very bleak view of minorities and those in need – the self-appointed savior believes they should be grateful to him because he is exceptionally open-minded, unlike normal people, who would be repulsed by them.

This is why the minority rights movement is inherently opposed to narcissism. Narcissism upholds hierarchies and depletes empathy, and there can be no human rights without empathy.

In fact, being seen as ordinary is the ultimate goal of any minority rights movement. After counteracting fear and hatred with enough celebration of diversity to preserve everyone’s well-being, most minorities hope to one day garner about as much recognition as left-handed people. In the West today, no one tries to nervously change the subject or get ready for attacks when someone brings up their left-handedness, nor do they gush about how great it is to know someone so different! The idea of putting left-handed people on display in a theme park is unthinkable. Not only would that be spectacularly inhumane, but who on earth would go? Left-handedness is interesting, but it’s not that interesting.

Narcissism fosters an addiction to the idea of being recognized as interesting. Encouraging a wallflower ostracized for her looks to question mainstream beauty standards can help boost her self-satisfaction and all-around happiness.  Encouraging her to disregard anyone who doesn’t explicitly praise how she looks can trigger anti-social behavior. So how do we avoid this?

Superb articles at Slate and The New York Times have been exploring better methods for teaching children modesty and emotional intelligence, while recent novels like this and articles like this have been making self-proclaimed progressives examine our sometimes monstrously selfish habits. And how did I come to stop thinking that my dwarfism made me superior?

A few months after our discussion about my exceptionally sized skull, I was bragging to my mother about being the only kid at my elementary school with dwarfism. Although I don’t remember exactly what I was bragging about, I vividly remember my mother’s concerned look before she said, “I hope you don’t think you’re special.”

W-w-hat? Wait, I’m not special? Her words stuck with me like a stone in my shoe, as most good pieces of advice are wont to do.

My parents are the most supportive people any child could wish for. They also called me out whenever they sensed I was taking up too much space.   

My dad beamed upon hearing that I had passed all of my exams after having struggled to find time to study during a year of two surgeries and lots of physical therapy. But he laughed in my face the next summer when I tried to boast about working TWENTY hours a week.

At the end of one of my limb-lengthening procedures, when six metal rods were unscrewed from my thigh bone without local anesthesia, I screamed until I couldn’t hear myself anymore because the femur is the biggest bone in the body and the pain matched its size. The last coherent thing I remember shrieking was directed at my surgeon: “I HATE YOU!” My mom later told me he apologized to me with every turn of the screw, but I was too hysterical to notice. What I do remember is lying on the table with no one left in the room but my mother and her friend who had come along to help, my eyes stinging with the salt of the tears, hyperventilating and moaning until the friend interrupted me: “Emily, stop it! You’ve cried enough. It hurt, you were upset, but now IT’S OVER.”

That’s what friends are for. To be proud of your achievements, sympathetic to your pain, and to also tell you when you’re being ridiculous.

 

 

Heritage on St. Patrick’s Day? It’s Complicated

16 Mar

IMG_1606(Image by Folke Lehr)

 

Along with millions of other Americans, I used to boast a bit every March 17th: “You know, I really am Irish.” It’s a common American pastime to cite one’s known heritage, either as demonyms (“I’m English and Irish and… ”) or percentages (“I’m a quarter Irish, one eighth Polish…” ). I still believe in self-determination, but having lived in Europe for nearly a decade, I have ceased to rattle off these titles. Not only is the latter a vain attempt at exactitude with no chance of ever being exact—we’re not even really sure if my great-grandmother was Polish or Belarusian—but it resembles the sort of puzzle-piecing that only pseudo-scientists of suspicious political convictions find relevant. And it makes Europeans laugh. And then correct me. “No, you’re not Irish. Your ancestors were Irish.” Which is true.

While Americans sometimes refer to their ancestors’ nation as their “homeland,” they usually can’t construct a sentence in the country’s official language and certainly cannot name the country’s current head of government, the second largest city, or any of its history that isn’t directly related to U.S. history. At best they know a handful of expressions, a recipe or two, maybe the region where their parents’ parents’ parents lived. For this reason, their claims to nationality usually strike the natives as silly.

But the melting pot concept is often admirably used to celebrate diversity. It bungles any sense of loyalty and prevents jingoism. I can’t really argue that the English are “naturally” evil for what they did to my Irish ancestors when my last name is Sanford. My known ethnic heritage is a split between some of Europe’s most notorious conquerors (English, German) and their victims (Irish, Polish). To claim only one or two of them as “my people” feels ridiculous. If I ever have children, their great-grandfathers will have fought on opposite sides of World War II.

Then again, not everyone’s heritage is such a hodge-podge, and plenty of conservative genealogists try to prove why the blending of certain cultures is “better” than the blending of others. That the perpetrators of segregation, Nazism, apartheid, aristocracy, and the internment camps are the most famous fans of genealogy causes me to cringe whenever anyone claims pride in having Irish or Italian or Icelandic “blood.”

Such pride is much more understandable when coming from minorities who have been made to feel that they don’t belong in the country they were born in. My grandfather, Michael Sullivan, was the grandson of Irish immigrants to America. He was the oldest of 9 children, my mother has 43 cousins, and I’ve never tried to count how many of us there are in my generation. He often began sentences with the word “ ’Twas,” and liked to sing folk songs that seemed to have come from Ireland, but may very well have originated in immigrant settlements in the States. This is the extent of my experience with his Irishness, but his was far more profound. He grew up in a time when he could easily find signs reading, “Irish need not apply,” and “mick” was a word he hated in the way that only people who have been called a slur do. When he married Barbara Tupper and her grandmother found out he was Catholic, she crossed my grandmother out of the family Bible. All this made John F. Kennedy’s election in his lifetime radical. It is my grandfather’s story and it is important. But it’s not my story.

An attempt to make it my story would feel intellectually dishonest and pretty flaky to boot. As Andrew O’Heir writes this week at Salon: “Irishness [in America today] is a nonspecific global brand of pseudo-old pubs, watered-down Guinness, ‘Celtic’ tattoos and vague New Age spirituality, designed to make white people feel faintly cool without doing any of the hard work of actually learning anything.” Indeed, my middle name endows me with no expertise when it comes to picking out Celtic music or Irish books and films. I can’t tell what most Irish people actually enjoy and what’s just on display for tourists any more than I can tell what Finnish people actually enjoy and what’s just on display for tourists.

As said before, taking an interest in other cultures is always preferable to xenophobia. But it often comes with the temptation to flaunt minimal efforts like feats of greatness. Claiming credentials based on ancestry feels not entirely wrong, but not entirely right either.

The boundaries of countries and ethnicities are as blurry as our sense of self. Heritage is often seen as the recipe that resulted in an individual, yet there are so many more ingredients to the recipe. Yes, I wouldn’t be here today if the branches of my family tree were arranged any differently, but I also wouldn’t be here today if my parents had slept together in April 1981 instead of March. And placing too much importance on genetics insults any families who cannot or choose not to have children using only their own reproductive cells. Family is what you make of it.

This is not to say that everyone should always downplay their roots. Children with at least one parent who emigrated from another country often have undeniable ties to their ancestral culture – in any case, ties that are far more likely to be based on fact than fictitious romanticizing. Most of what constitutes our inexplicable sense of culture comes from traditions and foods and pastimes we experienced growing up, and great writers like Amy Tan, Gary Shteyngart, and Sandra Cisneros show that growing up with two cultures affords you special insights into both. If my German partner and I ever have children, we plan to raise them bilingually (English and German) and bi-culturally (Thanksgiving and St. Martin’s Day), teaching them anything there is to teach about where their mother grew up and where their father grew up. Whether or not to add some Swedish into the mix—my mother-in-law came from Stockholm—is a point of endless debate between us.

If we ever have grandchildren, it will be interesting to see how they approach their American heritage. If they’re at all ashamed or excessively proud, I’m determined to discuss it, but if they’re merely disinterested, so what? I predict that my great-grandchildren will not feel any strong connection to their American heritage, nor should they. As my partner points out, maybe they will be half-Czech or married to a Burkinabé and have their hands full raising their own children bilingually. Cultures and people move and morph constantly throughout time and space.

When I finally traveled to Ireland two years ago, there were traces of culture that seemed somehow familiar. And that was moving. But most of the charm—“The Irish Sea really is that green! They really do sing in the pubs!”—came from recognizing things I’d grown up seeing in movies, not in my grandfather’s house. And I also found traces of culture the following year in Amsterdam that were faintly familiar to me because, although I have no known Dutch forebearers, I grew up on Long Island.

My most impressive sense of belonging in Ireland came from the fact that I was not the palest person around. Not by a long shot. (Hence my captioning the above photo taken on the cliffs of Howth in an e-mail sent to friends: “If there’s anything Sullivan about me, it’s my complexion.”) Lookism can be a very powerful force. But it does not have to be. In Dublin, we were never once served by someone who didn’t have a Slavic accent. If the current flood of Eastern European immigrants end up staying in Ireland, their children will have much more of a claim to the place than I do.

They’ll at least be able to remember the name of the prime minister, after all.

 

 

Does It Matter If It’s Genetic?

16 Feb

Photo 02-07-14 12 29 21(Image by Eduardo Unda-Sanzana used under Creative Commons license via)

 

There is an argument gradually gaining momentum in the LGBT movement: “So what if being gay is a choice?” Rather than lecturing social conservatives that homosexuality is an inborn trait and not a chosen lifestyle, we should ask them what’s so bad about two consenting adults loving each other. With bisexual, pansexual, and genderfluid identities becoming more visible, and all sorts of people becoming more open to experimenting, who really cares if any of it is a choice?

It’s an important question in the broader debate about sex and gender. And it forces me to question the parameters of this blog.

Painting On Scars is founded on the rights of people who are viewed as minorities based on qualities they have no choice about: gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, class background, physical traits, and mental abilities. This foundation is built on my own minority status being indisputably determined by factors beyond my control. There is no doubt whatsoever that I was, as Lady Gaga hollers, born this way.

And when it comes to confronting bigotry, there is something particularly painful about being belittled for something you have no choice about. All of us can feel insecure about the decisions we make, but being told that you’re seeking work in the wrong field or that you talk too loud on the phone is still far less harrowing than being told that your natural appearance is universally repulsive or that your gender makes you intellectually or emotionally inferior. Every one of us wants to be accepted for the way we were born because a rejection of it feels like a rejection of our very lives. As autism activist Jim Sinclair explains:

When parents say, “I wish my child did not have autism,” what they’re really saying is, “I wish the child I have did not exist and that I had a different, non-autistic child instead.” Read that again. This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. That your fondest wish for us is that someday we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.

For this reason, Painting On Scars examines the existence of minorities who are born this way and the myriad reasons why any of us still struggle to accept them. (More on the complexities of parenting disabled children here.)

However, the born-this-way rubric is not always helpful. What about the explicit decision to not conform? What about the human right to the pursuit of happiness? It seems only natural—for lack of a better word—to defend alternative traits and behaviors that are very much a choice but do no harm. Women who don’t wear makeup. Filmmakers who dare to feature minority accents. People who want to preserve their parents’ cultural traditions rather than assimilate for assimilations sake.  Men who don’t identify as transgender but still very much like wearing dresses. Objection to these choices usually stems from a rigid belief in homogeneity or simply a difference in taste. Such objections make it clear to me as a blogger that as long as a difference doesn’t cause real harm, it is worth protecting from harm.

And conversely, I tend to defer to others when it comes to minority traits that people have little choice about but that do cause a good deal of harm: personality disorders, psychosis, sexual attraction to children, paranoia, trauma, suicide, or anything that precipitates emotionally abusive tendencies. I research these issues voraciously, not only because I have personal experience with many of them, but because they raise questions about human rights and individual freedom, as well as the greater good and personal safety. (The pro-mia and pro-ana movements, for example, argue that any attempt to treat or cure people with eating disorders qualifies as oppression rooted in narrow-mindedness.) Yet I refrain from opining about these issues publicly because my knowledge of them is as simplistic as they are complex.

Whether to change society or change oneself is a persistent predicament that accompanies every stage of life. When exploring the answer as it applies to minority issues, I keep coming back to the same question: Who suffers more in the change?  Humans have repeatedly proven to cause less suffering when we accept body diversity, intellectual disabilities, LGBT identities, and gender equality than when we oppress them.

Of course, what constitutes oppression and what constitutes acceptance is sometimes disputable. Alex Andreou argues this week in The Guardian that the current search for the gene for homosexuality is quite harmful. While LGBT activists have traditionally opposed the idea of homosexuality as a choice to combat those who argue for a cure through therapy, LGBT critics of the genetic research fear that discovery of a gene for homosexuality will lead to its elimination. Those of us whose conditions are genetically determined and socially marginalized have been acutely aware of this problem not just since the advent of the Human Genome Project 30 years ago, but since eugenicists began sterilizing all sorts of peoples over 100 years ago. In democratic societies where governments no longer dare to be too vocal about medical decisions regarding minorities, everyone still fears the coming of the day when insurance companies inform expecting parents that they will not cover children who will cost more. Because the existence of minorities precludes the efficiency of a one-size-fits-all system, we will always cost more.

In the spring of 1994, I was headed into the operating room to have my Ilizarov fixators removed. While prepping for surgery, one of the members of the surgical team excitedly told my mother, “Have you heard the news about achondroplasia? They found the gene! We can test Emily for it!”

My mother signed a release allowing for them to perform the test during the operation. Several weeks later I received a letter confirming that my fibroblast growth receptor gene 3 had the achondroplasia mutation. My first reaction was, “No shit. Who cares?”

I had been officially diagnosed with achondroplasia on my third day after birth, though admittedly, such an early diagnosis back in the 1980s was a stroke of luck. A girl with achondroplasia who later became my best friend had been born at the same hospital six months earlier, so the doctors recognized our similarities and ordered x-rays on my limbs. My achondroplasia was obviously a result of nature, not nurture.

Then again, in olden days dwarfism was often thought to be caused by mothers with loose morals. I myself had once asked my mother if perhaps I got achondroplasia because of the decisions she had made about the birthing process. (I had just watched Look Who’s Talking and had learned a lot about the pop culture understanding of what goes into having a baby.) The gene for achondroplasia explained how I got it, how I could pass it on, and lay rest to any modern blame-it-on the-mother mindset that might suspect it was because of aspirin or salami or cinnamon. Such information can—but does not have to—affect your sense of self.

A few years ago a woman living in the U.S. contacted me because her two-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with achondroplasia. The girl’s grandparents lived in another country and had steadfastly dismissed the diagnosis. “Americans are famous for over-diagnosing every little thing,” they shrugged. “She’ll grow out of it!” (Pun intended?)

A friend from the same country explained to me that disabled people there generally have few support networks and even fewer opportunities for independence. Perhaps the grandparents’ refusal to believe in achondroplasia stemmed from their fierce desire to remain hopeful about her future.

Would running a genetic test finally convince them to accept reality? When I was born, my parents and I benefited greatly from the dwarf rights movement of the 1970s and 80s, which had emerged due to the egalitarian spirit of the times that indulged in civil rights and celebrating diversity. As with the gay rights movement, millions of supporters showed that they did not need to see the results of genetic testing in order to justify and defend a minority’s right to exist and be accepted. If they could do it, so can we.